New Orleans has such a rich musical history that the city’s festival culture often reads like the climactic moment in Casablanca when Claude Rains says, “Round up the usual suspects!” Producer Stephen Rehage has rewritten that scene for the Voodoo Experience, now in its 12th renewal. Rehage sees New Orleans music in a millennial context in which the right mainstream music acts bring appropriate comparison with and contrast to local performers. Rehage insists he is not in competition with Jazz Fest, which he calls “probably the best music festival in the world.” As producer of the Voodoo Experience and the Essence Festival, Rehage admits, “We really have our hands full with our own projects.”
Rehage has taken cues from such innovative gatherings as Bonnaroo and the Burning Man festival to contextualize New Orleans music globally and in the conceptual space of social networking. This year’s Experience will feature the return of the electronic music tent, a new design replacing the Bingo! Parlour’s Big Top and repositioning it as part of a series of small performance spaces designed to approximate the Frenchmen Street scene.
Rehage, a bright, soft-spoken man who lives right across from the festival site, sat down to talk just as his production crew began construction of this year’s Voodoo Experience in City Park.
You grew up in New Orleans, right? Where did you live?
On St. Claude Avenue, right where you go over the railroad tracks. It was pretty rough. I went to Annunciation and got an ass whipping walking home.
How did you get started in promoting?
I played football at LSU and I went up to New York to play for the New York Giants. I always like to say I “got traded” to the Canadian League and played for the Ottawa Rough Riders. At the time I was working on my MBA at Tulane. I would go to school down here during the week then fly to New York where I was taking an entertainment marketing class that started at 7 o’clock at night on Thursday night. Then I would take the morning fight to Ottawa. One night, the marketing director for Essence magazine came in and gave a lecture on how Essence was using the magazine to create properties with the help of sponsors and advertisers. They created the Essence Awards and music festivals and so forth. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
Did you go to Jazz Fest when you were a kid?
I grew up with Jazz Fest, but my earliest memories were the excitement of going to concerts. The first concert I went to was the Police with the Specials opening up for them at the Warehouse. I listened to radio at night and I remember David Bowie talking about how the Specials were his favorite band at the moment.
When I first heard about the Voodoo festival in ‘99 it seemed like an interesting idea but I didn’t really know what to expect. Then going to the first few, it seemed like it was searching for an identity.
I don’t know that it was searching for an identity. The identity was there, it was more putting all the parts together. Not having played in that space before from the production side created problems that had to be overcome. Logistically, we had to put an entire team together to create a music space.
The concept was always that New Orleans has been a place that historically allowed a lot of different people certain freedoms. Inside the bowl here, we’re a lot more liberal than the rest of the country, I think, but certainly the rest of the South. When you grow up with that kind of “anything goes” attitude and music and culture it seemed like a good fit here. You can turn on a radio station here and hear the connection between the drum beat of Congo Square and modern music. You can hear the connection between George Porter’s bass lick and Flea’s bass lick. So I think a lot of modern music has originated here. I was trying to make that connection. How do you put Moby on in front of Dr. John? To me it makes perfect sense.
How far out do you start planning Voodoo?
We plan pretty far out from the date. We already are looking at who’s touring next year. It’s become a little bit different mindset now that we’re doing Essence because they’re two massive events. In years back, I would have been meeting with agents and planning Voodoo for next year, but we’re coming up to the event and everyone is doing their job and I’m working 23 hours a day booking Essence, on the phone with Prince and Sade and figuring out what’s the bill going to look like in July. They’re spread out enough that they’re in different work cycles. We’re thinking about what 2011 Essence is going to look like, but meanwhile we’re in the production phase of Voodoo 2010.
I’ve covered a lot of big events and some of the best large-scale rock performances I’ve ever seen were at Voodoo. Iggy, for example, delivered a memorable performance.
On a personal level, that was a strong one for me. I grew up listening to Iggy. The gang I hung out with in high school, we’re all still very close friends, I got to send them an email: “We’ve just confirmed Iggy. Don’t tell anybody. He’s with the Stooges.” We were all hanging out on the side of the stage and hanging out with Iggy Pop. You become a fan, a kid again. You step out of that moment and you’re no longer a producer of the event. You return to being the kid who literally had that record next to my bed. “Play ‘Dog Food’!” I keep hoping I can get Bowie and Waits to play. Every year those are my first two offers. Ben [Jaffe] over at Preservation Hall made a great connection with Tom but Waits doesn’t like to play big outdoor events where he can’t control the environment. We’ve had a hard time trying to convince him to come out and play in front of 50, 60,000 people.
Voodoo taking place at Audubon Park right after the flood—I don’t think you can underestimate how important that was for the city. I know you’ve talked about this before, but I have to ask you what that moment was like for you.
A lot of it was in the mindset of trying to do it in eight days. It was kind of a two-part process. We still have the same team together since before Katrina and we’re all a lot closer for that. We’ve all been together from seven to 12 years. Katrina was like a whole parallel life span. We moved everything to Houston, then we had a meeting in New York and I said I want to do it on the same date on the same site just to prove to everybody that we’re not goin’ nowhere. Not as a festival. Our production manager started crying. Everybody wanted to help, which was pretty incredible. I’d pick up the phone and it was a call from Austin. “We’ve talked to the mayor of Austin. We’ll give you our site, we’ll pay for production, the proceeds will be donated to the people of New Orleans, just move your entire lineup here.” I got a similar phone call from Memphis and a similar phone call from Miami. VH-1 wanted to do it. We were offered all kinds of support from MTV and other television outlets. Finally, the decision was made to move everything to Memphis and as we were making preparations, I kept thinking, “This doesn’t feel right.” So I called the mayor, I called Mitch Landrieu, I called Ron Forman and I told everyone what I wanted to do. I was told, “If you’re dumb enough to do it, go for it.”
It was the first time since the storm that a lot of people got a chance to stop dealing with the sheet rock and the insurance, sit down and have a beer with friends and have a day of normalcy. It was only 59 days after the levees broke, so there wasn’t a normal day between that point and when we held it. People started rolling in at nine in the morning. I had fallen asleep on the grass with my dog and I woke up about 9:15 and saw these people storming in. I got a funny call from our production manager who said, “I think we can let security go. Our audience has machine guns.” The National Guard was coming in for the show.
It seems like 2005 was a turning point. Every year since the festival has grown and evolved its identity.
I had the idea in my mind. It was planned all along and then we got hit with Katrina, so I backed off and ran a music festival in a city that didn’t exist. After 2005, we had to decide how we would proceed in the future.
After growing up learning to appreciate the Indians and the unique culture of New Orleans, we were not sure how much of it was going to return. The Neville Brothers were living in Austin for god’s sake! From a local standpoint, people that knew Voodoo in 1999 tended to think of it as a big rock festival and it’s so much more than that. The national audience got it: “Wow, you’ve got Rage Against the Machine and Preservation Hall and they’re playing against each other?” They got the contradiction. Locally, people said, “I’m going to see Rage Against the Machine, I can see Preservation Hall Jazz Band any time I want.” So we were trying to come up with a different way of communicating with the local audience. We were trying to incorporate the new energy of the city, the new talent, and all the things that were happening in Bywater.
So we came up with the idea of The Ritual and breaking the festival down into smaller components to speak to the audience. The Ritual is the big rock event where you see Rage Against the Machine. But then there are the subtexts of the event. The Flambeaux: How do we present New Orleans music? You may come here to see Rage Against the Machine but you’re going to walk by Preservation Hall. How do we present New Orleans music to a new generation, regardless of what happens to the city? That’s where the Carnival came in, with Bingo! and all these new musicians who came to New Orleans from around the country. Now it’s five years later and we’re coming back and it feels good to be in New Orleans again. But at the time we were having that conversation, we didn’t know that. So it was a matter of asking the Red Hot Chili Peppers to play with the Meters, asking the musicians to help us tell the story.
In recent years Trombone Shorty’s shows at Voodoo have been particularly great. He started bringing hip-hop artists into his big stage presentations and formulating an approach that was directed not at the traditional New Orleans audiences he’d played to before, but an audience of his own age group.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with Troy about that. Now he closes the festival. He closes what was the Neville Brothers slot. We decided he would play in one spot so people can look forward to that as something unique. Every year he is closing, representing the city of New Orleans at the WWOZ Stage. No matter who is booked on other stages, Troy is the one constant. And I think that’s really paid off.